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  • Race-Based Epistemologies

    Wagadu 2015 ISSN: 1545-6196




    Shana Almeida York University

    Abstract In this paper I draw from critical work on the historical, social, political, and economic functions of race to show how Eurocentrism, hegemony and colonialism (re-)produce legitimate knowledge and knowers in the Western world. Specifically, I discuss how mainstream academia in the West reinscribes colonial and racial thinking by strategically reducing the vast theoretical contributions of racialised and Indigenous scholars to experiential insights or stories. As such, these critical contributions remain marginalized in the mainstream, western scholarly canon. In my analysis, I outline the need for race-based epistemologies, in order to resist the ideological, discursive and material racism in research and knowledge production. I also argue that employing critical white supremacy as a theoretical framework would de-center and contextualize western ways of thinking and knowing, and intervene in projects which seek to know, essentialize, and represent bodies of color by unearthing the historical, colonial, and racial relations that have desired the Other as a category of analysis. This paper presents important theoretical positions on epistemology, and contributes highly to critical theory and practice. Keywords: race, epistemology, knowledge-making, critical research

  • 80 Wagadu Volume 13 Summer 2015

    Wagadu 2015 ISSN: 1545-6196

    Introduction I begin this paper with a reflection on an event in honor of a well-known, well-respected feminist scholar of color; one who has inspired my work and much of the work of my friends and colleagues. During the celebration of this scholars contributions to the field of academic research, scholars, academics and researchers argued, publicly, over whether the honorees contributions were in the form of theory (having enriched the scholarly canon with theoretical concepts and frameworks) or in speaking from her experience (from her location as a racialised woman, offering insightful gains for research in general). The room felt tense, divided, and very uncomfortable. That a woman of colors contributions to scholarship could be either theoretical or lived experience, but not both, angered quite a few attendees. That certain bodies in the room could even reduce her contributions to experience angered many others, who felt that the comments reflected the tendency of many western academics to pigeonhole women of color into experiential/emotional writers (Trinh, 1989). The assumption made (or inferred) by some was that the lived experience of a racialised woman in academia counted for something, but that it wasnt really book knowledge (hooks, 1994). Or, more to the point, that in speaking from her experiences, this scholar offered no other value than to occupy the role of the native informant (Khan, 2005) who translates her culture for the researcher, the outsider (p. 2023).

    I would like to note here that this reflection does not to disclaim or discredit the many white feminist researchers and scholars who might also have their scholarship be reduced to experience; nor for that matter to shadow what experience has meant (or not meant) to the field of research in general from any non-dominant group member. I simply want to trouble the multiple axes of power that for some, would reduce this racialised womans scholarship merely to moments of experiential insight, as connected to and building upon what others before her have done and what others after her will continue to do. This analysis cannot be done independently of complicating the ontological and epistemological traditions that

  • Race-Based Epistemologies 81

    Wagadu 2015 ISSN: 1545-6196

    secure what is knowledge and what is not knowledge, or more accurately, who is a knower and who is not a knower.

    This paper seeks to examine the role of Eurocentrism, dominance, hegemony and colonialism in the production and re-production of legitimate knowledge and knowers in the western world. Using race-based epistemologies, I will argue that the subaltern body is socially, politically and racially marginalized so that they can never express their ways of knowing and reasoning without being Othered, oppressed and repressed, across time and space. However, I also argue that, while the racialised Other is marginalized, s/he is also a necessary condition for the continuation of colonial and epistemic violence in mainstream institutions. The acknowledgement of this position is not meant to destabilize movements by racialised groups (or any other oppressed groups for that matter) to challenge the epistemic violence of imperialism that powerful groups continue to defend. Conversely, it is a matter of identifying an epistemologically sound space for racialised bodies in relation to dominance that secures these alternative ways of knowing; that allows for a racialised Other to speak. As such, the role and rigor of dominance is central to race-based epistemologies, and central to this paper. To begin however, we must link Eurocentric, western dominance to its historical and ontological roots, specifically to understand the nature of reality upon which racial classifications are based. Ontology of race Scholars argue that in order to challenge racism in social research, we must be vigilant about deconstructing the nature of truth and reality upon which epistemologies are generally based (Anzuldua, 1987; Bernal, 2002; Canella & Lincoln, 2004; Denzin, 2002; Hill Collins, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 2000, 2003; Pillow, 2000; and Soloranzo & Yosso, 2002). In her book on racialised and gendered bodies in institutions, Puwar (2004) states that colonialism is the foundation of the fully human, individual white male subject, the irrational woman, and the wild, uncivilized non-white figure. The onset of modernity validated pure rational thought as mind over body. In the European imperialist project whites are associated with

  • 82 Wagadu Volume 13 Summer 2015

    Wagadu 2015 ISSN: 1545-6196

    the mind, the flight from the body. Non-whites (or savages) are associated with nature, wilderness, and the body (Puwar, 2004). Women, as irrational, are also of their bodies, but men are not. Logic and rationality thus become symbolically white and male (Puwar, 2004). The pre-capitalist, modern, European cognition also created the white master and the non-white slave (Anderson, 1991). The exclusion of non-whites and women as persons, as humans, begins in this moment of (non) racial and (non)gendered colonial dominance. Many black and Aboriginal scholars contend that defining racialised bodies as animalistic, natural, or non-human denies their subjectivity and perpetuates dominance (Cheney, 2005). Black Marxism also begins by tracing the ontology of official non-human, non-personhood that is the black body (Mills, 1998). Edward Said furthers the distinction between the fully rational white male and the non-human racial Other in Orientalism, the epistemological and ontological distinction that continues to exist between the west and the east. In the European idea of the Orient, the east is primitive, backwards, heathen, and uncivilized; the west is natural, civil, Christian, and normal. Expanding on Hegels constitution of the subject as needing to negate the very diversity it produces, Saids western subject is constructed by mediation through the other; the west (as natural, normal) cannot exist without the primitive and backwards east (Yegenoglu, 1998). I am because we are, (Mills, 1998, p.11; and Ladson-Billings, 2000, p. 257) the African saying, purports that the black body does not exist unless in relationship with others. As such, the denial of black existence is not individual; a black body does not exist because blacks as a group do not exist. The non-existence is racial. (Mills, 1998, p. 11)

    For race-based epistemologies, social reality is constructed through a hegemonic lens that rejects the racialised Other (Anderson, 1991). European whiteness is taken as the norm (DeVault, 1999). This is rarely questioned. This social ontology of the world is not just about the racial non-human, non-whites, it is also about the unmarked, non-raced whites. Mans relationship to the universe prevalent in white, male philosophy takes this natural, unmarked personhood for granted (Mills, 1998). The ontology involving the racial non-person, the existence of a racial hierarchy, and/or white supremacy as

  • Race-Based Epistemologies 83

    Wagadu 2015 ISSN: 1545-6196

    real explains the exclusion of racialised bodies from several spaces, across time. For example, at the time of the Frankfurt School formation, Du Bois and Woodson (African American scholars) challenged the dominant European paradigm at the same time as Adorno, Marcuse, Weber and Horkheimer; yet they were not included in scholarly canon because they were seen to be Negro intellectuals, having Negro concerns with a Negro problem (Ladson-Billings, 2000; and Pascale, 2008). Hill Collins (1990) also states that central to many feminist scholars viewpoints is that women are objectified as sex objects by men because they are identified with nature. Stanfield (1985) states that the ontologies and epistemologies of the dominant group that have continued to dominate for hundreds of years become so deeply embedded in contemporary society that they are seen to be natural, rather than socially constructed throughout history. However, as Anderson (1991) argues, race and racial representations are not just social constructions; they have less to do with the truth and more to do with the material interests they serve.

    Far f


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